The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

Weekend-long Jim Pepper Tribute Opens 2005 Portland Jazz Fest

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FEBRUARY 11-12, 2005 – Portland, Oregon USA

(this article originally appeared in

The huge pipe organ on the stage at Portland, Oregon’s First Unitarian Church was imposing, even awe-inspiring, but that wasn’t the cause of all the buzz among the 400-plus people in the audience on Friday night, February 11.

pdxstage01.jpgThe audience was treated to a rousing celebration of the life and music of Jim Pepper, who passed away in February 1992, at the age of 50. The concert – titled Remembrance, after one of Pepper’s many compositions inspired by the powwow social dances and Native American Church Peyote chants that he grew up with – was arranged and led by longtime Pepper pianist and friend, Gordon Lee, and featured vocalist Caren Knight-Pepper, along with Pepper alumni Dennis Springer (sax), Dan Balmer (guitar), Glen Moore (bass), and Carlton Jackson (drums). The group played a wide selection of Pepper’s compositions, including “Remembrance“, “Squaw Song“, “Comin’ and Goin’ “, “Caddo Revival” and more – along with, of course, “Witchi Tai To“, which had the audience singing along.

Knight-Pepper’s haunting vocals carried Caddo Revival to heights only suggested by the majestic pipe organ that served as backdrop. Springer’s sax explorations led Floy Pepper to note that he was one of the only sax players she’d heard who can evoke her son’s spirit. Pianist Lee told the audience that he never sang while playing with Pepper, although Pepper continually encouraged him to do so. But one can easily imagine that his old friend would be proud of the way Lee’s heartfelt voice carried him as he accompanied Knight-Pepper on some of the songs and chants. Bassist Moore, after recounting junior high school stage performance memories with the young tap-dancing, zoot-suited Jim Pepper, played a solo piece with bow dedicated to his childhood friend. Balmer’s guitar work gave the night’s performance a deep blues/rock/R&B feeling, and Jackson’s drumming spoke for the tradition of dance that lies at the bottom of much of Pepper’s composition.caren01.jpgOpening the night’s activities was a performance by the Native American Four Directions Dance Troupe, who returned before the second set and then again at the end, to lead the audience in a social round dance that snaked through the auditorium and into the lobby, before leading everyone back to their seats for a raucous and highly appreciative ovation.

Saturday night’s portion of the Pepper tribute weekend featured a screening of the award-winning 1996 documentary, Pepper’s Pow Wow, produced and directed by Sandra OsawaYasu Osawa. In the film, Pepper says, “I try to combine the music I learned from my grandfather, my father, cousins and other people — I try to combine that with American jazz… Native music is rhythm and melody. So is the music that the black slaves brought here. What happened is that they added European harmony to form jazz. When I try to put my native music into jazz, I use rhythm, melody, and add harmony to it. Or, as he told a group of students in Tuba City, Arizona, “rhythm, melody and sweet har-moh-neee.” and

dennis01.jpgThe Pepper tribute weekend also included panel discussions on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with reminiscences and insights into Pepper’s music from Knight-Pepper, Lee, Sandra Osawa, Jack Berry – a friend of the Pepper family who is working on a biography of Pepper, and had a big hand in organizing the weekend’s activities. This writer was honored to be invited to join both panels. At both panel sessions, Berry showed an old film, ffrom sometime in the 1960s, of Pepper performing in a Portland park, along with Gordon Lee, Glen Moore, Dan Balmer, and others. On Saturday night, the Pepper’s Pow Wow film was shown to an SRO crowd in a local theater, receiving a standing ovation. The Osawas were on hand to talk about the making of the film, and to take questions from the audience. Inspired by the weekend’s events and the enthusiastic audiences at the concert and the film screening, producer Osawa said that they are now considering a more complete DVD version that would include more from the several hours of interviews and performances that had been edited down to the original one-hour film. [Since then, a longer DVD version was finally produced, which includes about 10 minutes of additional material which had been vut from the original to fit PBS broadcast requirements. Ms. Osawa says she has hours of additional interview and performance materials that she wishes she could have included, but the expenses would be prohibitive. As of early 2008, the Osawas finished another documentary for PBS, this one about Maria Tallchief, a Native American ballerina who was perhaps America’s first prima ballerina.]

Also on the Saturday program, was a two-hour workshop on Native American music, “Earth Music: An Exploration of Native American Music and Culture”, which delved into the roots and practices of Native music and its impact on the wider American culture. The workshop demonstrated and discussed traditional dance, singing, drumming and storytelling, and how it related to the music of Jim Pepper. He was very conscious of the impact of his music on his Native culture, as well as on non-Native cultures — and he was aware of the responsibility that entailed. Alaskan drummer Ron Thorne has said that “Jim was on a mission. He used music as a foil to reach out and embrace his people. He talked about what he might be able to do, through his music, to have a positive impact on Native Americans.” In the Pepper’s Pow Wow film, we see Pepper telling the Tuba City students, “We as Indians have lost a lot of land. One thing that we still have is our music, and our music should never die.”remembrance01.jpg

Like Charles Mingus (to whom he has been compared, both as a composer and outspoken intellect), Pepper frequently exhorted his bandmembers to put all their energy into their playing, to commit themselves fully to what they were doing. “You must play music from your soul every time you play,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense not to be yourself.” What became abundantly clear from this weekend of celebration, is that Jim Pepper put so much of his own soul, so much of his energy, into his music, that it continues to thrive and inspire musicians and listeners alike, both Native American and non-Native. San Francisco bassist John-Carlos Perea says that “The music of Jim Pepper has set a precedent for me as an American Indian jazz artist that allows me to perform this music and know that I have a history I can look back upon and draw strength from when I need it.”

And it’s not just Native American musicians who are looking to Jim Pepper for their inspiration. Drummer and former Pepper bandmate Reuben Hoch has pointed out that it was Jim Pepper who encouraged him to look to his own Jewish upbringing for creative inspiration. Hoch’s band, the Chassidic Jazz Project, performs jazz-infused pieces based on the Ashkenazi Jewish songs and prayers that he learned growing up in his deeply religious Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Hoch says that “Jim was one of the causative factors for what I did.”

Frustrated in his attempts to gain acceptance on his own terms in America, Pepper eventually moved to Austria, where he quickly found an enthusiastic and intensely loyal audience — and where most of his own CDs were ultimately produced. Only now — through events like the Portland Jazz Fest’s Remembrance weekend — is he beginning to receive the acclaim he should have been getting long ago in his native land.

As part of that long-overdue recognition, the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute and the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission named Jim Pepper Jazz Artist of the Year, with the presentation of the McClendon Award to his mother, Floy Pepper, between concert sets.

floy01.jpgAt one of the weekend’s panel discussions, it was suggested that rather than calling events like this weekend’s a “memorial”, it might be more appropriate to think of it as “a tribute to the living legacy” of Jim Pepper. How fitting then, to have named Friday night’s tribute concert, Remembrance — for in his lyrics to that song, he tells us (and as Caren Knight-Pepper and Gordon Lee reminded us on Friday night):

“You must not forget me/When I’m long gone/Because I loved you/So dearly…”


Written by Bill Siegel

February 23, 2008 at 9:08 pm

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